A Fleet in Being

Notes to Chapter II

by Alastair Wilson. The page and line numbers refer to the 1898 Macmillan edition of A Fleet in Being.

[Page 17, line 5] the Powerful and the Terrible First-class cruisers, launched in 1895 and completed just in time for the Jubilee Review. Displacing 14,200 tons, little less than the Majestics, they were then the biggest cruisers in the world and the first British ships to have Belleville water-tube boilers, no less than 48 of them apiece, developing 35,000 h.p. Both played a useful part in the South African War. Naval guns on improvised mountings devised by Captain Percy Scott of the Terrible were invaluable to the Army at Ladysmith and elsewhere. The Terrible went on to acquire further fame in the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900) and for gunnery, with appliances, and methods introduced by Scott. The ships were, however, thought uneconomical in manpower and upkeep for their armament of 2 9.2-inch and 12 6-inch guns. In spite of expensive reconstruction in 1902-1903, which added another 4 6-inch guns, they were relegated to training hulks before 1914.

[Page 17, line 10] “Campanias” the Campania, a Cunard liner of 18,000 tons displacement (12,950 tons gross tonnage) built in 1893, was a giant and a record-breaker in her day (30,000 h.p., giving 21 knots “ocean speed”). Requisitioned by the Navy in 1915, she was converted to an early aircraft carrier. She was lost a few days before the Armistice (1918), the result of a collision during a gale in the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland. The Lucania was a sister ship.

[Page 17, line 12] “who had dragged who rounds the walls of what?” a reference to the body of Hector being dragged round the walls of Troy after his death in combat with Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad.

[Page 17, line 22] Bantry In County Cork, Bantry lies at the end of Bantry Bay, the first large indentation in the south-west coast of Ireland. Bantry was frequently used by H.M. Ships exercising in the Atlantic before the creation of Eire.

[Page 18, line 14] Rockall here spelt with the customary double “L”. Both this and the earlier one “L” on page 12 follow the original newspaper articles.

[Page 18, line 25] Berehaven this spelling, used in the Admiralty charts, has always been followed by the Navy, but “Bearhaven” will be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and many atlases. It is a fishing centre, lying behind Bere (or Bear) Island, on the north shore of Bantry Bay.

[Page 18, line 29] Fastnet a lighthouse on a rock off the south-west coast of Ireland, frequently the first landfall of eastbound liners.

[Page 19, line 7] riata lariat, a rope, especially horsehair, used for tethering animals.

[Page 19, line 26] four-inch quick-fire wire guns “Quick-fire”, with variants “Quick-firing” and “Q.F.” is an example of somewhat confusing naval terminology. It was originally applied indiscriminately to a variety of guns, from small ones of machine-gun type firing up to hundreds of rounds a minute by virtue of automatic loading and/or multiple barrels, through intermediate types like the 3-pounder and 6-pounder Hotchkiss guns, up to 4-inch and 6-inch Q.F. guns which, though a great improvement on their predecessors, needed a well-trained crew to reach double figures in aimed rounds per minute.

The position was not greatly clarified when “Q.F.” was chiefly used in British parlance to distinguish a gun in which the propellant charge was contained in a brass cylinder from a “breech-loading” (“B.L.”) gun, which had its charge in a cloth case, since the B.L. gun, also much improved, had then attained a highly respectable rate of fire while the Q.F. gun had always been loaded via the breech.

[A significant point was that the breech of a Q.F. gun was a sliding breech, whereas a B.L. gun’s breech was a hinged and swinging ‘oven door’ type, with an interrupted screw thread to lock it into position when the gun had been loaded. However, see Admiral Brock’s comments at p.20, line 18-20 below. A.W.]

In the United States, the B.L. gun was frequently and more aptly called a “bag-gun”, meaning that its charge was in a cloth bag rather than in a metal cylinder. A “wire” or “wire-wound” gun, instead of being built up with a number of jackets of solid metal shrunk on over the inner tube, owed much of its strength to a winding of steel wire (tape would be more descriptive) applied under tension round and round the inner barrel. This was eventually covered by an outer steel tube, shrunk on as before.

[Page 19, line 29] Maxims The Maxim, invented by Sir Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), an American who became a British citizen, was a machine-gun capable of firing 600 or 650 rounds a minute.

[Page 19, line 27] the waist in the Pelorus, the area of the upper deck lying between (and lower than) the forecastle and the poop.

[Page 20, line 6] the beautiful solid brass cordite cartridges initially, the brass cartridge case had been a factor in obtaining a better rate of fire, because the case, expanding when the charge was fired, sealed off the escape of gases to the rear of the gun (a process known as obturation) and obviated the need for a complicated, tight-fitting breech, and it also reduced the risk of a charge being ignited by smouldering debris left in the gun. Later improvements reduced this advantage, vide the note on line 18-20 below.

[Page 20, line 13] “still” the Bugle Call “Still” was used to enjoin silence and a suspension of movement, either to correct a mistake or produce a state of readiness for an important event.

[Page 20, line 16] the click . . . of an utterly useless sword swords were worn at Action Stations almost, if not quite, until the Real Thing arrived.

[Page 20, lines 18-20] “the faint clink of a four-inch breech swung open: the crisper snick of the little Hotchkiss’s falling-block” The hinged breech-block with an interrupted screw thread action, which with a part of a turn secured the breech and seated it on an obturating pad, had been borrowed from the French for the B.L. gun. It proved so successful that it was adopted for the 4-inch Q.F. also (until it was later ‘un-adopted’ again). The 3-pounder Hotchkiss, however, retained a simple sliding breech block which fell downwards to open, and relied on the cartridge case for obturation.

[Page 20, line 27] “ten knots right deflection” This was the correction in horizontal angle to allow for relative movement of ship and target, wind, etc.

[Page 20, line 28] “muzzled the rubber-faced shoulder-pieces” “muzzled” is a printer’s error; it is “nuzzled” in the original. The shoulderpiece was an extension of the gun which the gunlayer aimed much as he would a large shotgun.

[Page 20, line 29] “the long lean muzzles behind the shields” “behind” as seen from an observer in the ship. The muzzles would obviously be outboard of the shields.

[Page 21, line 1] “the smack of cordite is keener, and catches one more about the heart, than the slower-burning black powder” As gunnery advanced, the original gunpowder charges were found unsatisfactory, because their combustion was too violent and uncontrolled and dense black smoke obscured the target. Alterations in composition and shape gave slower-burning powders but their impulse was too brief and the smoke remained.

Men like the peace-loving Dr. Nobel in Sweden, Sir Frederick Abel in Britain and other experts elsewhere had been looking for a propellant which would be stable, much more smokeless, and would impart a more sustained impulse to the projectile. Cordite, invented by Abel about 1890, was considered suitable by the British services.

Higher muzzle velocity and a greater residual pressure in the gun as the projectile left the muzzle would account for the keener “smack” noticed by Kipling.

(Incidentally, the bitter litigation following the introduction of cordite led to the suggestion that “discordite” would have been a more appropriate name. Nobel’s claim that it was covered by his patents was not upheld.)

[Page 21, line 21] a Martini-Henry a rifle of .45 calibre, used by the British Army, 1871-88. It replaced the Snider and was followed by the Lee-Metford.

[Page 22, lines 13-28] “squirting death through a Hose …. things will happen” On the whole, naval gunnery in 1914-18 was less effective against a well-designed, well-fought ship than had commonly been expected, but this was mainly due to the long range at which most actions were fought. At the ranges contemplated in 1898 the smaller guns would have been highly lethal to men in exposed positions.

[Page 23, line 16] “tumble-home boats unused to working in a sea: a beaky and a plated Navy, with big tops that roll and strain, might suffer” a clear reference to the French Navy – in 1897 still the most probable antagonist – which had a number of ships with exaggerated “tumble-home”, “beaky” rams, thick but often narrow armour belts and massive-looking fighting tops on the masts.
Tumble-home means an inward slope of the ship’s sides from the waterline as they rise towards the upper deck. It entails some reduction in stability if the ship is listed, which might occur after damage in action. Curiously enough, Sir William White so much admired the appearance of a moderate tumble-home that he accepted this disadvantage in his battleships, as can be seen in Wilkinson’s drawing on the cover.

[Page 23, line 24] a good sea-boat a ship that behaves well in bad weather. “Boat” is sanctioned by custom in this context.

[Page 24, lines 7-11] “the destroyers . . . . in two minutes” our earliest destroyers, the “27-knotters” launched in 1893-95, were just under 200 feet in length. The “30-knotters” that followed, ca. 1896-1900, mostly ran from 210 to 230 feet. Except on a hot station abroad, they were painted black.

[Page 24, line 31] Ulysses the Latin name for Odysseus, the resourceful but sometimes irresponsible King of Ithaca whose wanderings after the siege of Troy form the subject of Homer’s Odyssey.

[Pages 25-28] this is an admirable description of the feelings of a young watchkeeper.

[Page 25, line 21] speed-lights these gave a rough indication of speed, provided the Officer of the Watch remembered to have them altered as necessary.

[Page 26, line 20] “eighty-five” “Revolutions per minute” is understood.

[Page 27, lines 26 and 27] “Our leader, of course, cannot signal back down his line” In his autobiography, Admiral Sir Percy Scott, (Captain of the Terrible
in her second commission), records that as a Commander about 1890 he invented an all-round masthead signalling lantern, but owing to official opposition it was not adopted for many years, after Admiralty modifications had failed.

(It is, perhaps, only fair to the Admiralty to mention that Scott’s inventive genius was closely approached by his talent for making enemies and antagonising his seniors. A modicum of diplomacy would have smoothed both his own path and that of his inventions.)

[Page 28, line 9] “Who wouldn’t sell a farm and go to sea?” this, usually with “his farm” instead of “a farm”, was a catchword in the Service for years.

[Page 28, line 15] “the tell-tale compass overhead” an inverted compass with its card clearly visible from the bunk was a common fitting in a captain’s sea cabin.

[Page 29, line 5] “he goes to school” one suspects that Kipling received a slightly over-drawn picture of the lowliness of a Sub-Lieutenant in a battleship, but no doubt this varied from ship to ship.

[Page 29, line 8] watch-officer watchkeeper is more usual. [or Officer of the Watch, abbreviated to OOW. A.W.]